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What's gone wrong at Chelsea for Sarri

OPINION: How Sarri's tenure has gotten the Blues really feeling blue

February 23, 2019 By Michelle Bonsu
Sarri's arrival was supposed to usher in a new era at Stamford Bridge...but things have gone horribly awry for the Italian in his first season in charge.

What a difference a few months can make.

On November 11, 2018, Chelsea recorded a 0-0 draw against Everton. It was a frustrating result, but nonetheless, ensured that the Blues still remained unbeaten after 12 games and were looking like serious contenders for the league title.

Two weeks later, the team returned to action after the international hiatus and suffered their first loss - a 3-1 result against fellow London rivals Tottenham. At some point, Chelsea were going to lose a game, and many figured it was just a minor blip, although there was a shock 2-1 defeat to Wolves before they lost 1-0 to Leicester City right before Christmas. In between those two losses, they did beat Manchester City 2-0, giving fans a glimmer of hope, but it was short lived.

Indeed, it could not have prepared observers for the horror show that has unfolded since 2019 arrived. Chelsea attempted to match wits with another London giant and were handed a 2-0 defeat to Arsenal. Was a pattern developing? Then came what fans thought would be the low point of the season, a 4-0 humiliating defeat to Bournemouth.

Unfortunately, if Blues supporters worldwide thought that was simply awful, well, then, February 10, 2019 will arguably go down in history as one of the darkest days for any Chelsea fan. Perhaps that is a bit over the top, but it marked the third straight away game in which Chelsea failed to score, and during that time they had conceded a whopping 12 goals. By the way, Chelsea have still yet to score a goal in an away Premier League match since the start of 2019.

So what has gone wrong for Maurizio Sarri in his first season in charge? Quite a bit, naturally. And while Chelsea's sudden downward turn may seem shocking to some, for others, it is hardly a surprise - especially when one takes a look at Sarri's past record in Italy and his reputation for being stubborn to a fault. Let's have a look at some of what has really gone awry and why Sarri's tenure has the Blues feeling very blue at the moment.

A rigid system

Sarri's method of playing football, nicknamed "Sarriball" by the press, requires a strict 4-3-3 system, in which one has four solid defenders - no wing-backs - plus a holding midfielder, two central midfielders, and then a striker supported by two wingers. The plan basically evolves around playing quick, rapid-fire passes as they charge up the pitch. It has paid off - Chelsea have done well in the Europa League thus far - but it has backfired miserably as well, and when the going gets tough, Sarri refuses to modify his set-up or the personnel who are instrumental to trying to implement his "Sarriball" methodology.

And this brings us to our next topic: Jorginho.

The Jorginho question

The Brazilian-born Italian international won rave reviews for his impressive performances for Sarri's Napoli, and his manager clearly was determined to ensure his star player enjoyed the same kind of success at Stamford Bridge. In order to accommodate him as a deep-lying playmaker (or regista, as that position is described in Serie A), Sarri made the bold decision to move none other than N'Golo Kante, widely viewed as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world out of position and play him further up the pitch in an unfamiliar attacking role.

Claudio Ranieri, Kante's former coach, deployed him in front of the defense and it paid dividends as Leiceseter City went on to shockingly win the Premier League title. And clearly, Antonio Conte felt that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" when he ensured that Kante remained in his preferred spot as Chelsea clinched the title in his debut season at Stamford Bridge. Didier Deschamps, Kante's coach at national level, didn't try to mix things up as far as Kante was concerned, and we all saw how France performed in Russia this past summer.

So why on earth would Sarri opt to tinker with something that doesn't need fixing? Certainly, one can understand if Jorginho were setting the pitch alight and Chelsea were winning game after game. Initially, the ex-Napoli man did impress, but when the going got tough as Chelsea eventually came up against fellow big sides, he was brutally exposed.

The first signs of trouble really came during Chelsea's 3-1 loss to Tottenham, where Mauricio Pochettino made sure his side man-marked and harassed him throughout the match. At the first sign of pressure, Jorginho panicked - as it's not something he is used to dealing with - and without Kante nearby to offer defensive assistance, he turned over the ball over and over again.

Unfortunately, Jorginho's flaws have been easily exposed and he is now being targeted as the "weak link" in the middle of the park - much to the overall frustration of fans as Chelsea continue to struggle

And other teams quickly followed pursuit, the most recent of which was during Chelsea's 2-0 loss to Manchester United in the FA Cup. Under pressure, he faltered again, and without the defensive protection he desperately needs - as defending is not his strong suit - Chelsea were left wide open to be picked off. Blues fans saw this debacle unfold during the 6-0 horror show at Stamford Bridge, yet he was left on to play the entire match as Sarri refused to modify his formation.

Yet, still, Sarri has refused to bench Jorginho and place Kante back in his original position. Curiously, it was also under Sarri's tenure that Cesc Fabregas - another notable playmaker - was given little playing time and eventually moved on to Monaco.

Questionable moves in the transfer window

This brings us back to the Jorginho issue. Yes, he impressed at Napoli. But in reality, Serie A is a very unbalanced league. Juventus is the undisputed no. 1 side in Italy, then you have Napoli, Lazio, Roma, Inter, and perhaps even AC Milan - despite their struggles - as the next crop of sides. Occasionally, a team like Sassuolo barges in and upsets the party, but of course when one is playing for a top side against some pretty poor teams - like Napoli versus the likes of Pescara or Benevento - one will look world-class.

The Italian Serie A is also a much slower-paced league than the English top flight. Could anyone really have seen Andrea Pirlo - whom some bold Napoli fans have compared Jorginho to in the past -  being a huge hit in England? Probably not, and that's why he made the wise decision to stay in his native Italy for the bulk of his career, where he was able to operate within his comfort zone with devastating success.

With that in mind, Jorginho is clearly struggling to find his footing, and things are not going to get any easier for him, unfortunately. He's not the first Serie A player to find it tough in England, though, and he certainly will not be the last. But that is just one of the questionable moves Sarri has made in regards to the transfer window.

The other? Gonzalo Higuain. Again, Sarri opted to turn back to Napoli when looking to reinforcements, and last month, persuaded the Chelsea board to authorize a loan-deal for his ex-striker in a desperate bid to help the team solve their striking issues.

Now, it was under Sarri that Higuain netted 36 league goals in the 2015/2016 season, which earned him not just the Capocannoniere but equaled a nearly 90-year record that had been set by Torino's Gino Rossetti for most goals during a campaign. However, things have not gone well for Higuain as of late. Despite two solid campaigns at Juventus following his big-money move in 2016, the arrival of his former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo this past summer forced him out towards AC Milan, and he arrived at Stamford Bridge off the back of one of his worst goal-scoring runs of his career.

Truth be told, the arrival of Higuain didn't exactly get Chelsea fans excited, but Sarri has clearly put everything on the line by backing his ex-striker to get the team back on track

Clearly, Sarri likes to look to his former side for players, and there is nothing wrong with that, but unfortunately for him, Higuain has not panned out, either. His lack of pace is a serious problem - fans saw this notably during the loss to the Red Devils where he had a golden chance via a breakaway, only for Manchester United's defenders to be able to catch up to him and snuff the opportunity out.

Additionally, he has struggled to be able to properly connect with star man Eden Hazard, which is little surprise as Higuain was brought in midway through the campaign and needs more time to settle in with his colleagues. Suffice it to say, the January move for him simply boggles the mind and unless if things start improving quickly, this will be another questionable signing under Sarri's tenure.

Unfortunately, rather than tinker with his system to accommodate the players he has in store, Sarri seems to think he can bring Napoli to Stamford Bridge. And obviously to do that, he will need to bring in a whole slew of other Partenopei personnel, which is simply not happening. This unwillingness to adapt to situations and narrow-minded focus also caused problems for him even at Napoli, but in a very different way, as we will see in our next point.

Putting all his eggs in one basket...and it backfired horribly

Sarri has received plaudits for his brand of football, with one notable admirer being the man who orchestrated his team's recent 6-0 humiliation. That being said, unlike Sarri, Pep Guardiola has actually won numerous accolades in three different countries, while Sarri, to date, has just two team titles: a Coppa Italia with Sansovino and a league title with the same club.

If Sansovino doesn't exactly ring a bell, well, that is understandable. Back in the 2000/2001 season, when Sarri won his first piece of silverware as a manger, they were playing in the Eccellenza. That is the Italian fifth tier for those of you not familiar with the Italian football pyramid, and in the following season, having secured promotion to Serie D (the fourth tier), he then guided them to win the Coppa Italia.

Now, that's not to say that a coach needs to be highly decorated to succeed in his position. Just look at the case of Conte, Sarri's predecessor at Stamford Bridge. When the former midfielder arrived at Juventus, he had won just one Serie B title with Bari during the 2008/2009 season. But it was under his tenure that the Bianconeri were transformed from struggling giants to the top team in Italy, as along the way, he won three consecutive Scudetti as well as a couple of Supercoppa Italiana titles.

And Real Madrid opted to take a huge gamble mid-season when they brought in former player Zinedine Zidane, who won plenty of awards as a player, but had no experience in managing at the senior level. That gamble, of course, paid huge dividends, namely in the form of an unprecedented three-peat at the Champions League level as well as a La Liga title plus a smattering of various cups.

Napoli may have played beautiful football during Sarri's reign, but they regrettably have nothing to show for it. During Sarri's last term, the Partenopei really looked like title contenders, and were even crowned "Campioni d'Inverno" (winter champions) at the midway point of the season. While that title means nothing on the pitch, more often than not, the team who is crowned winter champion does tend to go on and win the Scudetto.

So, with that in mind, Sarri opted to throw all his energy into winning the Scudetto - and thus eschewed other opportunities in the Europa League and the Coppa Italia. It backfired miserably. Despite pushing Juventus all the way and even beating the Bianconeri in Turin thanks to Kalidou Koulibaly's 90th minute effort, a shock 3-0 loss to a Fiorentina side playing for nothing but pride, followed by a 2-2 draw with Torino, handed the Scudetto right back to Juventus. Napoli would go on to pick up 91 points - a club record - but it was only enough for second place.

Meanwhile, while no one expects Napoli to win the Champions League, the Europa League was certainly within their reach. But after dropping down in the the round of 32 after finishing third in their quartet, the Partenopei made a swift exit, just like they did in the Coppa Italia at the quarter-finals stage. Both Atalanta and RB Leipzig - the two teams who knocked them out of the Coppa and the Europa League - are nowhere near world-beaters.

Certainly, if Sarri had taken those opponents more seriously, there is no reason why Napoli couldn't have progressed; in the case of the Europa League, they lost the first leg 3-1 at the Stadio San Paolo, but managed to beat the same opponents 2-0 on the road just a week later. 

So where next for Sarri...and Chelsea?

Next up for the Blues is a much-unwanted clash against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final, and arguably this game could not have come at a worse time. Sarri's days are certainly numbered at Stamford Bridge, as owner Roman Abramovich has shown that he has no qualms about wielding the axe - even after a coach has enjoyed a successful season prior. Just look at what happened with Conte, as a most recent example.

Will Sarri modify his approach, as he is facing the same team who thrashed his side 6-0 two weeks ago? At this point, he appears to be totally bereft of ideas, and perhaps knowing his days are numbered on the tactican's bench and may just pull out a totally new formation that could shock everyone.

But don't count on it. And if this stat so far in 2019 is any indication, Chelsea fans will simply be bracing themselves with gritted teeth to see what awaits them on Sunday in the 2019 Carabao Cup final.




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